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Interview with John Ralston Saul on the 172nd anniversary of democracy in Canada

On the 172nd anniversary of democracy in Canada, we spoke to John Ralston Saul, co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, and author of Extraordinary Canadians: Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin, about why March 11 should be a national holiday, what lessons we can learn from LaFontaine and Baldwin, and more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why is March 11 the anniversary of Canadian Democracy?
On March 11, 1848, the Canadas and Nova Scotia tricked the British into giving them responsible government. It sounds boring, but what it really means is that parliament has the power, instead of the imperial authority. Whoever has the votes in parliament decides who the governor general can call to be prime minister and form the government. So, from the moment that parliament has the power over who governs and how the money is spent, you have democracy and virtual independence. You can’t be a colony when you control those two pieces. So, March 11 is the beginning of democracy in Canada and of Canada becoming an independent country. And it is the beginning of the end of the British Empire because that model is then slowly, slowly followed by other countries, beginning with New Zealand and Australia.

So, Canada was the first out of the British Empire to have responsible government or democracy?
We’re actually the first out of any of the European empires. Canadians understate all of this. The world was controlled by the English, French, Italian, Spanish, German and American empires and the first country to talk its way out was Canada. Before that, we had only the Americans, who fought their way out, which was the old-fashioned way LaFontaine and Baldwin used political methods to accomplish something which the British governing elite opposed.

Can you talk a bit about LaFontaine and Baldwin and what they mean to this day?
Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin were the visionaries and leaders of the government – the Great Ministry, it was called – that came to power on this day 172 years ago.

What’s wonderful is they are two really odd guys. They didn’t meet until they were in their thirties. They came from two different cities, two different languages, two different religions. Suddenly a few years after the failed rebellion in 1837, they were brought together. I don’t know what they thought of each other but they quickly realized that they had to do something. And they were real fighters by temperament.

In fact, LaFontaine, when he was a young man, had been a boxer — an intellectual and a boxer. He started political life as Louis-Joseph Papineau’s main bodyguard. And Baldwin was a strange, romantic figure.

From 1840 to 1848, they fought, fought, fought. Everything but physical violence on their side. It was quite dangerous, I mean their lives were at risk many times. They often had to flee Orange Order club-wielding mobs. They were cool and very calm and courageous. At last, they won the election of January 1848.  By 1849 the anti-democratic forces attempted what were in effect counter coups. In 1849, when the Orange Order and the anti-democratic elites burned down the parliament buildings and tried to assassinate them, they refused to send the soldiers in to open fire. They said — we’re just going to wait this out, we’re going to try and keep order as calmly as possible. And so, they set the model for a very stern, but non-violent approach to government.

By the time they got to power in 1848, they were already not that well. It had been such a hard fight. Three years later when they left, they were exhausted. Ready to die. They were in their fifties and a few years later they were dead. It killed them, doing this really killed them.

Do you think that March 11 is a day that should be celebrated more than it currently is?
Yes, absolutely.

Until the worship of John Macdonald began in the 1960s — really an attempt to be like the United States and to have this single heroic figure, which, of course, couldn’t help but backfire — until then, LaFontaine and Baldwin had always been major figures in the story of Canada. They were talked and written about endlessly. With the LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture and all the work that we’re doing at the ICC, we’re coming back to that idea that Canada is not a place with one leader or one hero — it isn’t about heroes, it’s about ideas, strategies — inclusion, the public good, egalitarianism. Egalitarianism was central to the 1848 idea of Canada – endlessly invoked.

March 11 is an incredibly important date because it sets a pattern for the country at its best. Remember that 1848 was the year when most of the European countries went through what they called the democratic spring of Europe. They overthrew their undemocratic governments in France, Italy, the Austro-Hungarian empire, et cetera. Nova Scotia and Canada were part of that revolutionary change. But within about six to nine months, all those governments had been overthrown by the old anti-democratic forces. The only places where democracy survived were the Canadas and Nova Scotia. It’s really quite remarkable. They survived by being incredibly tough and by refusing to let violence run the show. So, I think it should be celebrated enormously. We must try to understand this success.

It’s worth remembering that, just before they formed the government on March 11, [LaFontaine and Baldwin] got the legislature to pass its first pro-democracy bill, which was a bill setting up an immigration policy for Canada. So, the very first act of a democratic parliament in Canada was to pass an immigration bill. It’s pretty amazing.

What do you think could be done to celebrate March 11 more?
I think it should be an official day in Canada.

It should be a day on which people and politicians, citizens, and schools talk about where they feel our democracy should go. Because LaFontaine and Baldwin were all about that:  you can only have democracy through strategies for improving society. That’s how they did it. It wasn’t nationalism; it was improving society and the public good. I think their names — but above all their approach — what they taught us about how to build democracy in Canada, should be in schools. There should be continual discussions about how we can improve our societies, just as they did in 1848. Parliament and the legislatures should mark the day.

Do you think the conversation about how we can improve societies is missing in the public dialogue?
Yes. So much of journalism is about power. Who is winning, who is losing. And about very specific issues. Fine, but there is very little stepping back and saying, what do we need to do in order to create a more inclusive, a more just society. A lot of the work that we are trying to do at the ICC is about that, in terms of new Canadian citizens, in terms of immigration, in terms of citizenship. And I think that there really has to be enormous emphasis on the role of ideas and working out where we can go. Because if you don’t have a big idea of where we should be going, it all ends up in directionless infighting.

What role do you think everyday citizens could have in not only promoting LaFontaine and Baldwin, but also in having this conversation about where we can go as a society?
That’s why I’m always talking about citizenship. here are three or four things that a citizen can do, should do. One of them is really to be talking with families, with friends, in social clubs, classrooms, hockey arenas, workplaces, talking about where should the country be going. Why do we have homelessness, poverty? What should jobs look like. What policies are needed on Indigenous questions. These things need to be thought of, not just in terms of the policies of the day, but they have to be thought of in terms of what do we really want to do. And people can talk about that in many places. Most of us participate in all sort of social, family, religious, professional gatherings. But we don’t organize enough as citizens to talk with each other about where we think the country should be going. It’s not just a thing for political parties. It’s something for each one of us.

What can we learn from that initial government – the Great Ministry – in the context of today’s increasingly polarized political landscape?
The fascinating thing is that it was, of course, polarized then. It was the pro-democratic forces against the anti-democratic forces. That’s how we ended up with a burnt down parliament. But in the end, most of the anti-democratic forces changed sides. A large number of the people who had opposed LaFontaine and Baldwin ended up adopting most of their ideas, their ideas about democracy, their ideas about bilingualism, their ideas about inclusion, their ideas about social policy. They were largely adopted. We are living today on foundations built by LaFontaine, Baldwin, and their allies. What is fascinating is that out of that great reform party — which was called the Reform Party and the Great Ministry — came both the Liberal party and the Conservative Party. Effectively, the Reform Party split in two and most moderates joined one or the other. Why? Because they understood — they both accepted the idea — that they had to advance the common good or they couldn’t expect citizens to support them.

We have to get away from the idea that competition in politics is only about opposition. It may be about different approaches, but it has to be about improving and strengthening the public good. And I think that is one of the great messages that came out of [the Great Ministry]. The lesson is that there is something called the common good and it has to be served. And we must remain centred on that. If children are not eating properly, if newcomers are marginalized, if people are homeless, if treaty negotiations stretch on for decades…we have to talk about these real issues and about what makes dignity and citizenship possible.